On Capitol Hill instead of a baseball field, wearing suits instead of uniforms, they walked into the room, stars all, forced by subpoena to testify before Congress whether they cheated by using steroids.
WASHINGTON — On Capitol Hill instead of a baseball field, wearing suits instead of uniforms, they walked into the room, stars all, forced by subpoena to testify before Congress whether they cheated by using steroids.
Heads turned, strobes flashed and necks craned to get a glimpse of the humbled heroes.
Five current and former players, three of them among the 10 leading home-run hitters in history, bemoaned steroids as a problem for their sport but denied they are widespread.
Mark McGwire hemmed and hawed, his voice choked with emotion, his eyes nearly filled with tears. Time after time yesterday, he refused to answer the question everyone wanted to know: Did he take illegal steroids in the historic home-run summer of 1998 or any other time?
No matter how hard the congressmen tried, McGwire wouldn’t say.
“If a player answers ‘No,’ he simply will not be believed,” McGwire said in his opening statement. “If he answers ‘Yes,’ he risks public scorn and endless government investigations.”
On a day of extraordinary theater at the House Government Reform Committee, McGwire sat at a wooden table, his accuser, Jose Canseco, at the other end. Also there, sitting biceps-to-biceps, were Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Curt Schilling. Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox testified via videoconference.
Canseco raised his hand, took the oath and repeated the admissions and accusations in his best-selling tell-all book, “Juiced”: He used steroids himself, and they were rampant in the game. Sosa, Palmeiro, Schilling and Thomas said they didn’t use them.
Schilling backtracked from his earlier claims of rampant steroid use, saying “the issue was grossly overstated by people, including myself.” He estimated that only five to 10 of his teammates in the last 15 years used steroids but said he had never actually seen anyone take the drugs.
Commissioner Bud Selig later said the extent of steroids in baseball was blown out of proportion.
“Did we have a major problem? No,” he said. “So let me say this to you: There is no concrete evidence of that, there is no testing evidence, there is no other kind of evidence.”
McGwire repeatedly avoided direct responses, saying his lawyers advised him not to answer certain questions. Often, he said he couldn’t answer or had no opinion because “I’m retired.”
Peering over reading glasses, McGwire fidgeted as he looked up at the congressmen, no longer the larger-than-life figure who was the greatest single-season home run hitter ever.
Asked by Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., whether he was asserting his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself, McGwire said: “I’m not here to talk about the past. I’m here to be positive about this subject.”
Asked whether use of steroids was cheating, McGwire said: “That’s not for me to determine.”
Still, he said he knew steroids could be dangerous and would do whatever he could to discourage young athletes from using them.
“What I will not do, however, is participate in naming names and implicating my friends and teammates,” said McGwire, who ranks sixth in major-league history with 583 homers.
All the players present offered condolences to the parents of two young baseball players who committed suicide after using steroids. The parents testified earlier.
“Players that are guilty of taking steroids are not only cheaters — you are cowards,” said Donald Hooton of Plano, Texas, whose son, Taylor, was 17 when he hanged himself in July 2003.
It was a tense scene. Canseco sat stone-faced at the table and said he could not fully answer questions because of concerns that his testimony could be used against him.
When Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling testified, he said flatly of Canseco: “He’s a liar.”
The hearing came after committee members accused baseball of ignoring its steroids problem for years and then, only under pressure, embracing a weak testing program.
For the most part, the congressmen were deferential and unwilling to press the players, saving their toughest comments for baseball’s new testing program, including a provision allowing for fines instead of penalties. A first offense could cost a player $10,000 instead of 10 days out of a six-month season.
Selig, however, said he would suspend anyone who fails a test, adding: “There will be no exceptions.”
Baseball banned steroids in September 2002 and began testing for them in 2004.